Did God make a mathematical error in 1 Kings?


The Bible, in 1 Kings 7:23, says Pi = 3. How do I explain this?


Math refresher: “Pi” is the circumference to diameter ratio of a circle and it equals approximately 3.14159. In other words, a circle’s circumference (measured around the circle) is about 3.14159 times as big as the circle’s diameter (measured across the circle, through the center). So if you know a circle’s circumference you can calculate its approximate diameter: circumference divided by 3.14159 equals diameter. Or if you know a circle’s diameter you can calculate its circumference: diameter times 3.14159 equals circumference.

1 Kings 7:23 states, “Then [Hiram] made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference”. From this statement, we gather the following: (1) the surface of the sea is a circle (it is “round”); (2) the diameter is 10 (“brim to brim”); (3) and the circumference is 30. (Height is a third dimension irrelevant to our discussion.) Herein lies the problem: mathematicians tell us that a circle with a diameter of 10 must have a circumference of about 31.4159 (10 times 3.14159), not 30; and a circle with a circumference of 30 must have a diameter of about 9.5493 (30 divided by 3.14159), not 10.

So did Hiram defy the laws of mathematics when he made this round sea? Or is there an error in the Bible? I suggest that neither of these assertions are correct. Here are a few other possible explanations:

(1) The measurements provided were not intended to be precise. We get a general idea of how big the sea was and that is all the author intended to convey by the measurements.
(2) If the author did intend to convey somewhat precise measurements, he still rounded. The sea’s diameter was actually somewhere between 9.50 and 10.49 which rounds to 10, and the circumference was actually somewhere between 29.50 and 30.49 which rounds to 30. Within these ranges there are an infinite number of diameter and circumference combinations which result in a mathematically correct circle. For example, if the circumference was an even 30 then the diameter was actually 9.5493 which rounds up to 10.
(3) The measurements of the sea’s diameter and circumference may have been taken at different places on the brim. 1 Kings 7:26 tell us that the bronze used for the sea had a thickness of “a handbreadth”. So, for example, the diameter was measured from the outside of the brim while the circumference was measured from the inside.

The point here is that we need to read and understand scripture trusting in its truth with the author’s intentions in mind. The *Catechism of the Catholic Church * (CCC) tells us, “In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words. In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression” (CCC 109-110).

See also:
One Text, Four Senses
How to Read Scripture Like Jesus and the Apostles

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